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KALIS: Dear Grand Haven Science O, thank you for everything

• May 17, 2016 at 1:00 PM

Of all the “lasts” that my daughter has had in this, her senior year — her last cross country race, musical performance, Catalina show, and soon last choir concert and soccer game — the one that pulled on my heart strings the most was her last Science Olympiad season.

It seems like it was just yesterday that Mr. Whipkey escorted my shy, little sixth-grader to sign up for Science O, encouraging her to at least try it. We sure owe him for that one! I remember the night before their first practice test, my daughter was so upset because she couldn’t identify all the birds on the study list. I told her to just do her best.

When I picked her up from the practice that evening, I asked her how it went. She said, “I got 50 out of 80 correct, and apparently that’s really good because Mrs. Bird was really excited.” I laughed and told her, “Good job,” and smiled proudly, but obliviously, when we were told she would compete. We didn’t know that, at the time, with two middle school teams of seventh- through ninth-graders, it was rare for a sixth-grader to be on the competing team — in fact, we didn’t have a clue about a lot of things.

At her first competition, her teammate ran up to me and excitedly announced that my daughter had gotten sixth place. I said, “Is that good?” The girl laughed and told me that the goal was top 10 — so yeah, that was really good. My daughter collected a second medal for the other event she was in, and so it all began. A flame was ignited inside her and, as she grew, so did her passion.

We moved quickly from naïve newbies to seasoned pros. We knew what to pack, where to park, when to arrive and at what place. We knew the state awards would be as long as they were uncomfortably hot. We mastered finding the fastest route between events, and knew there would be late, late nights of studying and occasional stressful outbursts. We expected that, during Science O, our house would be cluttered with binders, papers, folders, page protectors, goggles, random materials for various events, library books and field guides.

We also knew that with Grand Haven’s impressive tradition of excellence came a certain responsibility, and when we wore our Grand Haven shirts, people would be whispering behind our backs that we were the team to beat. Indeed, other schools were gunning for us, some even finding loopholes in the rules to try to take us down. Despite it all, Grand Haven maintained their integrity, earning their top spot through hard work, dedication and determination alone — not an easy task.

Indeed, the competition has grown more and more intense, and as it has increased, so too has the difficulty to stay on top. Last year, we barely made it through to nationals. This year, there was an underlying uncertainty, a fear that it could be the year the giant would be slain.

For many years, Grand Haven High School has been crowned the regional champions. This year, they announced them as runners-up. There was a collective gasp of astonishment, not just from those from Grand Haven, but the entire Grand Valley State University gymnasium. Can you imagine having that kind of expectation placed upon you? Grown adults would buckle under such pressure.

They had lost by a single point. To put that in to perspective, after months of studying and hours of testing in 26 different events, it’s as minor as a timed event being less than a second slower, or someone getting partial credit on a test. In Science O, the smallest of errors can decide what size trophy you bring home — which makes it even more impressive that they had won for so many years.

The day of Science O states arrived and, for the first time in the seven years we’ve been a part of it, rain came pouring down. An omen, perhaps?

As the awards progressed, our fears were slowly realized. It became painfully obvious that their reign would be coming to an end. It was heartbreaking to see this fact washing over the team. Every now and then, someone would break down, and another would put a consoling arm around them. They had poured their hearts and souls into trying to keep the winning streak alive, and now were faced with not going to nationals for the first time in years on end. It was difficult to watch it all unfold.

Finally, the team awards were given. When the winning teams who would be moving on to nationals were called up on stage, I dared to peek down at the Grand Haven team. What I saw was even more impressive than all the medals hanging around their necks. They had not left the auditorium like others had. They were not sitting solemnly in their chairs, passively clapping out of obligation. Instead, despite their aching hearts and unimaginable disappointment, they stood and they applauded.

A seasoned pro who thought she knew everything about Science O, realized something in that moment. Grand Haven’s tradition of excellence is not just about a winning streak. It’s about commitment, teamwork, extreme dedication, pride, sportsmanship, respect and an undying passion for science. Yes, the winning streak was broken, but the tradition of excellence was quite obviously upheld.

Though my heart aches for my daughter to not be able to compete at nationals, my heart is also full of gratitude — for this amazing program and all that it encompasses; for Mrs. Bird, who, despite the reconfiguration, has never given up; for Mr. Whipkey, who for us started it all; for the smart, funny and incredible kids and their families we’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know over the years; and for the joy and opportunities Science O has given to my daughter.

For one last time: Congratulations, Haley, and the rest of the Science Olympiad team, for an absolutely incredible run. Thanks for having us along for the ride.

— By Kelly Kalis, Tribune community columnist

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